Mnemotechnics and the Reception of the Aeneid in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages

Mnemotechnics and the Reception of the Aeneid in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages

By Jan Ziolkowski

Style and Tradition: Studies in Honor of Wendell Clausen, edited by Peter Knox and Clive Foss (Stuttgart and Leipzig: B. G. Teubner, 1999)

Detail of a miniature of several episodes from book IV of Virgil's Aeneid: on the right, the hunt during which Dido and Aeneas meet; on the left, Dido and Aeneas ride into a cave together, and in the middle of the image, Dido is on her funeral pyre, committing suicide after the departure of Aeneas.

Introduction: In the Institutio oratoria Quintilian advises people who lack both a strong memory and an aptitude for extemporaneous speaking to apply themselves to literature, not speech-making:

But even this is no remedy for a weak memory, except for those who have acquired the art of speaking extempore. But if both memory and this gift be lacking, I should advise the would-be orator to abandon the toil of pleading together and, if he has any literacy capacity, to betake himself by preference to writing. But such a misfortune will be of but rare occurrence.

Although Quintilian may not have been justified in linking weak memories and literary pursuits (certainly not in the case of the man whom this volume honors!), even so I will provide numerous aides-memoire in the form of quotations as I explore the effects of formal memory training upon the reception of the Aeneid in late antiquity and the Middle Ages.

Beginning with the theory of memory, I will trace how Simonides’ famous anecdote about the origin of formal mnemotechnics survived in the Middle Ages. From theory I will move to practice, by examining the role of memory training in ancient and medieval school training. In this examination I will focus on the effects that formal memory training and the prestige of memory had no the remembrance and interpretation of the Aeneid. Throughout I will set my sights on the problematic period from late antiquity through the twelfth century A.D. Frances Yates, in her still-essential book on The Art of Memory, states at one juncture that: “If Simonides was the inventor of the art of memory, and ‘Tulliua’ its teacher, Thomas Aquinas became something like its patron saint.”

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